In the year 1900, at the dawn of cinema, Sherlock Holmes Baffled became the first documented film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. Despite its brisk 30-second runtime, Sherlock Holmes Baffled also served as an introduction to a new film genre: the mystery.
Over 100 years later, movie mysteries have been produced in almost every imaginable form, from the countless adventures of Doyle’s Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot to the dark psychodramas of Alfred Hitchcock to the even darker labyrinthine constructions of David Fincher.
The mystery genre, through sheer volume of production, has been largely and ironically demystified — which is why Searching stands out not only as a great mystery but also as a much-needed breath of fresh air from a genre that’s become progressively more predictable and procedural.
The Game’s Afoot
John Cho stars as David Kim, a father who’s struggling to catch up to his evolving relationship with his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La, in her film debut). When Margot mysteriously disappears, David is forced to piece together her last movements using her various social media accounts, emails, and blogs.
David is also joined in his search by Detective Vick (Debra Messing), an investigator who takes over when Margot’s disappearance goes from mysterious to potentially criminal. Messing and Cho carry the lion’s share of the film but are boosted by strong supporting turns from La and Joseph Lee as David’s brother, Peter. As the pieces of Margot’s life begin to come together, David learns that his daughter’s life contains more secrets than he could possibly have imagined.
Searching Turns Viewers Into Detectives
The entirety of Searching is presented in a format that producer Timur Bekmambetov has dubbed “screenlife.” The audience becomes a first-person spectator, viewing every frame of the movie through some kind of device: on a computer desktop, in a browser window, directly through FaceTime, or, in one particularly effective sequence, via multiple streaming webcams. This isn’t the first time screenlife has made its way into a studio release (Bekmambetov also produced the screenlife horror films Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web), but it’s the best and most effective use of the format.
In trying to solve the mystery of Margot’s disappearance, the audience becomes a detective as well, scanning the screen for clues and additional information, sometimes trying to psychically will David to scroll back, click, or refresh in order to see a vital clue that he might miss. The screens we see become a tool, a series of ciphers that hold the answer to the puzzle of Margot’s disappearance, but only if the pieces are assembled correctly.
In the process, screenlife becomes less of a novelty and more of an enhancement, increasing the audience’s attention and investment in what’s going on. Searching is the first fully successful use of the screenlife format, but if it is to survive, it will need to continue innovating and finding new ways to tell a story. Otherwise, it may find itself on the movie novelty scrap pile, nestled between Sensurround and Smell-O-Vision.
Worth the Journey
A format can’t carry a film, though, and Searching ultimately works because of John Cho, who is in nearly every frame of the film. Living vicariously through David, we experience his confusion, desperation, grief, and paranoia as the mystery unfolds. There are a few twists and turns that threaten to inject too much melodrama into the story, but Cho’s measured performance is able to keep the film grounded as it builds toward its crescendo.
If the relationship between David and Margot doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work. Director Aneesh Chaganty smartly realizes this and puts the film in the hands of a talented cast that elevates Searching above the empty stylistic experiment it could have been. There’s a reason why mysteries and police procedurals have survived and flourished for so long — deep down, just about everyone fancies themselves to be an amateur detective. Searching casts the audience in the lead investigator role and challenges us to find the answers. It’s a long and winding road to the truth, but it’s worth the journey.